In November, I released my first album of original compositions of Jewish prayersong. Over the past twenty years, these prayersongs have moved through me and outward into singing communities around the world – in shuls (including our own beloved DJC) and retreat centres, around Shabbat dinner tables and campfires and, as I found out from a Jewish military chaplain, once among a group of US military generals waiting for a flight out of Kandahar airport! (a story for another time).
I don’t know how to read or write musical notation. I haven’t studied music theory. But over the past twenty years melodies have stirred in me, shimmering and unfolding from a marvelous and utterly mysterious Source. Melodies often come to me while I’m walking, with the sway of my body and the motion of my feet striding rhythm that beats my heart into new song. What a wondrous gift it is when a melody floods into my mind, when it wakes me in the middle of the night (though it doesn’t always feel like a gift at 3am) or when I can discern the slightest whisper of it, stop what I’m doing, and listen attentively until it slowly makes itself known. In those moments, I feel a lyrical connection to the Talmud’s description of King David’s harp (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 3b). The Tanach’s (Hebrew Bible’s) great poet, composer and bard would hang his harp in the window before falling asleep so that when the north wind blew at midnight, it would awaken him with melody. What might it be like to orient ourselves toward that practice – learning to be awakened with melody?!
I often begin with a line from the siddur (prayerbook) that I find striking. I find the Hebrew words beautiful, spiritually evocative in their sound, their metaphors and meanings, and I’m moved to find a melody that will carry me, and carry us, more deeply into the experiences that the words are inviting us to explore, directly and personally. Sometimes I’m drawn to a moment in the arc of tefillah (prayer service) that seems to be calling out for a particular quality or feeling or relationship and I am propelled by the question of how melody might move us to explore that quality together. And then, to discover through the melody, through the singing, through the resonating silences afterward, the experiences and connection that lift us beyond the words.
I think it is such a rich question – what are we aiming for when we sing prayer? This is a question that guided what I wanted the album to sound like. It is also a resonant question for us when we gather to sing at High Holydays or on Shabbat. The kind of singing in prayer that I find potent and alive, that has the potential to move us and transform us as individuals and to foster healing in the world around us, seeks to be unpredictable, daring and vulnerable in the voice, just as it is aiming to be surprising, daring and vulnerable in the heart and mind. Singing prayer asks us to open a channel between voice and heart so that our sound can authentically express the truths of our joys and aches, yearnings and struggles. It works in the other direction as well, as singing, and particularly singing together, can draw fresh sensitivity and attunement from the outside, in – as we sing our way toward hearts alive with joy, gratitude, sorrow and love.
In the album liner notes, I wrote that these melodies are ‘an invitation to sing out, to grow still, to dance with the Divine and to discover new meanings in ancient words, coming alive in our breath, our bodies and our resilient ever-opening hearts.’ I extend that invitation to you, whether you listen to the album, sing along in your car, or come together in shared voice and shared song, hanging our hearts in the window to be played by the north wind.
My album, Zeh HaYom – this is the day, is available at: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/miriammarglesandthehadarensemb